25 September 1987 - 27 September 1987

The Gulf War, Lebanon, Palestine: A Review of Middle Eastern Crises and Prospects

Chair: Sir Anthony Parsons GCMG LVO MC

This wide subject divided into three parts: the highly topical Gulf War; the Middle East question and Lebanon; and the factors making for stability and instability in the region as a whole. The two introductory sessions dealt almost entirely with the first two topics, with little to link them; and the group which was asked to look at the wider issues which might have formed a link found itself with only eleven members. Nevertheless in the final session it was the wider issues which dominated the discussion.

Over the war between Iraq and Iran, there was a clear division between those who saw Iran, whatever the failings of the regime, as a victim of aggression which at great cost had defended itself and achieved the advantage (which it might be losing) and believed that if there was to be a settlement, Iran would have to be offered some inducement on top of the pressure now being applied; and those who, while not denying Iraq's original aggression, took the view that the two sides now had to be treated even-handedly so that if one party rejected Resolution No 598, pressure must be applied to coerce it. Few seemed to think that an end to the war was in sight, even though, with increasing international involvement, it had entered a new and critical phase. It was generally agreed that Iran with its large and growing population and its geographical position, represented "the strategic prize". Some discounted the possibility that Iran might come under Soviet influence, but others argued not only that this could not be assumed, but that if the balance of regional security as between Iran, Iraq (still feared by many in the Gulf) and the Arab Gulf states was to be restored and to last, any settlement would have to cater to some extent for Iran's concerns.

The point was made that the Iranian regime, the product of a popular revolution, was much more dependent on the outcome of the war than was Iraq, where defeat, though it might supplant the leader, would not necessarily bring down the regime. There was debate about the success of US and Soviet policies in the Gulf and about the degree of support of the US among the Arab states. It seemed to be the general view that while US policy had been successful in putting pressure on Iran and had much support in the Arab world, there were fears in some Arab states that US withdrawal might leave them exposed. Moreover US policy allowed the Soviet Union to claim legitimacy for its own forward policy. On a sombre concluding note, it was suggested that direct conflict between the Superpowers was most likely to occur when each perceived that its vital interests were threatened, when the regional powers were out of control, and the diplomatic ground rules were not clear, all of which conditions pertained in the Gulf.

The discussion of the Middle East question could have taken place at almost any time in the last twenty years, with one, to me, highly significant new factor: the demographic changes taking place in Israel and the West Bank, where within a few years it was foreseeable that the Arab population of Israel and the occupied territories would outnumber the Jewish, whose make-up and political attitudes were also changing. All seemed to agree that this argued for a settlement on the basis of "land for peace", with self-determination for the Arabs and the West Bank as the ultimate outcome, after a longish transition, a settlement based on Security Council Resolutions numbers 242 and 338. Meanwhile the peace process must be continued, for its own sake, if the situation was not to deteriorate, the currently favoured procedure being an international conference, including Soviet, Syrian and in some form Palestinian representation, as a cover for bilateral negotiation between Israel and Jordan. The Israeli Prime Minister was the principal stumbling block. The US it was clear was the only power trusted by Israel and perceived by the Arabs to be able to persuade Israel to make concessions. Europe's role was discounted. The Soviet Union would have to be accepted and might come along, in order not to be left out, but had no real interest in a settlement even under Gorbachev. Syria too, preferred the present situation but would be interested in recovering the Golan. Jordan was powerless on its own (and might be threatened by the increase in the Palestinian population), while a new generation of Palestinians, less moderate than Arafat, was emerging - and taking divergent courses on the West Bank and abroad. It was remarked that the practitioners seemed in general to be more optimistic than the outside observers, but this was more a matter of degree than substance.

Lebanon was discussed, inconclusively. The political and economic situation was desperate, but none had any constructive thoughts about what could be done. The general view seemed to be that the international community should involve itself more, but at least one experienced voice was raised to suggest that Lebanon had suffered from too much international involvement and was best left to the Lebanese and Syria to sort out, presumably with international help in reconstruction when the political problem was resolved.

Finally, the conference concluded, with some misgiving, that the factors such as Islamic revival, Arab nationalism, economic difficulties and social discontent did not, despite appearances, constitute imminent threats to the stability of the region generally or to individual states. Khomeini's revolutionary Islam, it was felt, had largely lost such appeal as it once had had, even to the Shi’a populations of its neighbours; Islamic revivalism (a term preferred by some to fundamentalism) provided a "mobilisation platform" for political agitation, but tended to be expressed more through personal piety than through political agitation and, for example, in Egypt had been brought into the established political system. This was challenged by some, and it was agreed that a spark, provided, for example, by economic collapse, could ignite it. Generally, the traditional regimes appeared stable, with established procedures for ensuring the succession. In due course however the succession in Syria and elsewhere might provide the occasion for renewed disturbances. It was suggested that people throughout the area, lacking attractive models, seemed to have tired of revolution even though there were still economic and social discontents, and were coming to accept the nation state. On this comforting note, the conference ended, though many will have departed feeling uneasily that events were likely to falsify the conclusion. 

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Conference Chairman: Sir Anthony Parsons GCMG LVO MC
Research Fellow and Lecturer, University of Exeter; Board Member, British Council


Mr Adel Darwish

Writer/researcher, Arab Research Centre, London

The Hon David Astor

Director (1976-81), The Observer
Mr George Brock
Foreign Editor, The Times
Mr John Bulloch
Middle East Editor, The Independent
Sir James Craig GCMG
Director General, Middle East Association; Visiting Professor in Arabic, University of Oxford. Director, Saudi-British Bank; Special Adviser, Hong Kong Bank Group; President, British Society for Middle East Studies
Mr Robert Fisk
Middle Eastern Correspondent, The Times
Mr Andrew Gowers
Middle East Editor, Financial Times
Mr John Grundon
Regional Coordinator, Near East, Middle East and Indian Subcontinent, BP
Sir David Miers KBE CMG
Under Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Mr Edward Mortimer
Assistant Foreign Editor, Financial Times; a member, Programmes Committee, the Ditchley Foundation
Mr Alan Munro CMG
Deputy Under Secretary of Stale, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Mr Peter Oppenheimer
Student of Christ Church, Oxford, and University Lecturer in Economics, Oxford University; Member, Council, Trade Policy Research Centre
Dr Roger Owen
Director, Middle East Centre, and Fellow, St Antony’s College, Oxford; Faculty Lecturer, Economic History of the Middle East, University of Oxford
Mr Patrick Seale
Director, Patrick Seale Books Ltd; special writer on Middle East Affairs for The Observer
Dr Avi Shlaim
Reader in International Relations, University of Oxford
Sir Sigmund Sternberg KCSG JP
Chairman of several companies; Lloyds Underwriter; Chairman, Executive Committee of the International Council of Christians and Jews; Member, Council of Keston College
Mr Paul Tempest
Head of International Energy Division, Group Public Affairs, Shell International Petroleum Co pic
Mrs Valerie Yorke
Acting Middle East Editor, Economist Intelligence Unit; Writer and consultant on Middle East affairs; Member, RUA and USS; Director, Rights and Justice; Member, British Society for Middle Eastern Studies

Ms Ann Medina

Network Producer-Journalist, CBC ‘The Journal', Toronto

Dr Andreas Kohlsch
Diplomatic Correspondent, Die Zeit

M Philippe Coste

Chef du Centre d’Analyse et de Prevision, Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, Paris
Mme Bassma Kodmani-Darwish
Research Fellow, Institut Français des Relations Internationales (IFRI), Paris
Dr Dominique Moïsi
Assistant Director, Institut Français des Relations Internationales (IFRI), Paris

Professor Yehoshafat Harkabi

Hexter Professor of International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies (Senior Lecturer 1968-73, Associate Professor 1973-78), Hebrew University, Jerusalem; Director, Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations; Visiting Fellow, St Antony’s College, Oxford

Dr Kunio Katakura

Ambassador of Japan to United Arab Emirates

Dr Shahram Chubin

Director of Research, Programme for Strategic and International Security Studies, The Graduate Institute of International Affairs, Geneva
Mr Arthur Vogel
London Correspondent (Middle East Correspondent designate), Tages-Anzeiger, Zurich

Professor James A Bill

Professor of Government, and Director, Center for International Studies, The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA
Professor Nazli Choucri
Political Science Department, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA
The Hon Wat T Cluverius IV
Senior Adviser for Middle East Peace, Department of State
Mr William E Colby
Partner, Colby, Bailey & Associates (Attorneys), Washington, DC
Professor Michael Curtis
Department of Political Science, Rutgers University; Editor, Middle East Review, Associate Editor, Jerusalem Quarterly, Member of the Board, Institute on the Middle East
The Hon Walter L Cutler
United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia
Dr Adeed Dawisha
Professor of Government and Politics, George Mason University
Mr Thomas Friedman
Bureau Chief, New York Times, Jerusalem
The Hon Philip Habib
President’s Special Envoy for Central America; Senior Research Fellow, Hoover Institution; Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
Mrs Rita Hauser
Partner, Stroock & Stroock & Levan (Attorneys), New York; Member, Advisory Panel on International Law, US Department of State; Chairman, Advisory Group, International Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in the Soviet Union; a Director, the American Ditchley Foundation
Mr David Ignatius
Outlook, The Washington Post
Dr Joseph A Kechichian
Associate Scholar in Residence and Lecturer, Woodrow Wilson Department of Government and Foreign Affairs, University of Virginia
Dr Farid el Khazen
Department of Political Studies and Public Administration, University of Beirut, Beirut, Lebanon
Ms Judith Kipper
Guest Scholar, The Brookings Institution, Washington, DC; Consultant on international affairs for ABC News and the Rand Corporation
The Hon Robert G Neumann
Director, Middle East Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Georgetown University
Mr John W O'Connell
Senior Partner, Connole and O’Connell (Attorneys), Washington, DC
The Hon Charles Percy
President, Charles H Percy & Associates, Washington, DC
The Hon Thomas R Pickering
United States Ambassador to Israel
Dr Daniel Pipes
Director, Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia, PA; Editor, ORBIS (quarterly journal of world affairs)
Dr Kenneth Stein
Associate Professor of Near Eastern History and Political Science, and Director and Fellow, Middle Eastern Programs, Carter Center of Emory University
Mr Merle Thorpe Jr
President, Foundation for Middle East Peace, Washington, DC. Counsel, Hogan & Hartson (Attorneys), Washington, DC; Member of the Board, American Near East Refugee Aid, and International College, Beirut; Member, Board of Governors, Middle East Institute, Advisory Council, The American Ditchley Foundation
The Hon Richard N Viets
Ambassador-designate to Portugal
Mr Milton Viorst
Writer and journalist; Author: Sands of Sorrow: Israel's Journey from Independence